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My Life’s Birds: The provisionals

June 29, 2011

This is it.  The last Life’s Birds post

When I started this series I saw it as a way to encourage content from my occasionally writer’s-blocked self for the foreseeable future.  I’m not sure if I ever really saw the end of the tunnel when I started heading down it, but as I didn’t even know if this blog thing would take to me at the time, the end of this long look at every bird I’ve seen in the ABA area is something of a surprise, even as it’s kind of a bittersweet one.  Bu don’t worry, I’ve got something else in mind for next week, another series that will offer that little bit of continuity that Life’s Birds, at its core provided this blog.  So look forward to that!

Plus, as I continue to get life birds – at a much slower pace, no doubt – this series will pop back up from time to time. But as a quick look back, here’s my very first Life’s Birds post, from November of 2007.  We’ve come a long way, baby.

Anyway, some people count heard birds on their life lists.  This is a personal decision, up to the individual birder, and in no way reflective on a birder’s skills or dedication.  In fact, a very good argument can be, and often is, made that both seeing and hearing are on equal footing; experiences that are filtered through our external sensory organs and precessed in our brains to determine a bird’s presence.   After all, hearing a bird is noting its presence, and in fact some birds simply have to be experienced audibly.  Seeing, but not hearing, a nightjar, for instance, is missing out on a huge part of experiencing that bird.  As such, you’re entirely justified to count those birds.  It’s just that I don’t.

I, like all primates, am primarily a visual creature. It is how we experience the world around us and those old habits, rooted deep into my genes through millions of years of evolutionary fine-tuning.  I want to see the birds, even if I appreciate hearing them too.  So for state and county and small scale lists, I absolutely count heard birds, but for my ABA list, I don’t.  But I still keep track of those birds that remain “heard-only”, on a provisional list.  At the point I do finally see the species in question, that initial record becomes my life record, but not before.

It’s silly.  It’s irrational.  But the bottom line is that some birds are just really difficult to see.  My provisional list sits at three currently, and all three are from families that can bedevil even the most dedicated birder.  They’re birds I will see eventually, but until that moment when I finally put eyes to them they stay on the B list, AAA talent waiting to be called up to the bigs.  The provisionals. I’ll cover each one individually.

King Rail: I’ve been pretty unlucky with this largest of the North American rails.  I happen to know sites where they breed in my own state, in the next county over, but I’ve been unlucky, either visiting those sites at the wrong time of day or the wrong time of year.  Not that this is anything to be ashamed of.  Rails are notoriously skulky and too often loathe to give up their secrets.  I had hoped that a recent trip to Florida would finally find this bird within my grasp, and I even planned my outing around nailing one down, but while my morning at Orlando Wetlands Park was amazing I never got closer than a hundred meters or so from a pair of calling Kings.  I tried tapes, but they were not impressed.  And so to the provisional list this one goes.

Chuck-will’s-widow: When I visited the Outer Banks for a pelagic in 2008 I stayed at the home of some friends in Buxton.  The night before the trip I was awoken from a fairly deep slumber to hear an incessant Chuck-will’s-widow calling from the vicinity of their driveway, and no more than a few meters from where I was sleeping.  In my groggy stupor I cursed the bird and put my head back down to go to sleep, not realizing that it have been nothing to glance out the window where I would have potentially seen a Chuck calling away.  Another life bird missed.  I’ve been looking for one ever since.

Eastern Whip-poor-will:  This is perhaps the most embarrassing miss on my list.  I have heard multiple Whips in my life, from the birds that sang on summer evenings in the backyard when I was a kid in Missouri to the half dozen I heard on backroads in southern Chatham County just last month.  I’d even seen the Mexican subspecies, an individual hawking moths at a lamppost in southeast Arizona in 1994, before that was split last year.  But I’ve never found or flushed or otherwise enjoyed the sight of an Eastern Whip in my life.  It is a giant black hole on my list and in my heart.  They’re hard to come by in the urbanized Triangle, and I no longer have a backyard ringing with Whip songs, but one of these days, when I least expect it, this will be remedied.

And so these three birds sit in limbo.  Unseen, uncounted, but not unnoticed.

Soon enough.

  1. June 29, 2011 8:24 am

    Great post! Recently, we heard Chuck-will’s-widows flying all around tent during an excursion to the Everglades, but despite our best efforts, they seemed to always stay just hidden. I added them to our life lists, but they’ve they’re still marked with an asterisk in my mind

  2. June 29, 2011 9:52 pm

    I count heard-only birds in exactly the same manner as you do. Thankfully, I just have one provisional entry on my ABA list – Black Rail. But that’s one that I’m not likely to convert to full-fledged sighting anytime soon, unfortunately.

  3. June 30, 2011 9:36 am

    I can’t believe that you got through them all. Impressive!

    Looking forward to the new series…

  4. July 2, 2011 1:37 pm

    I totally agree Chuck wil’sl widows and Whip poor wills are like owls, you hear them but they are so doggone elusive. Just keep trying it will happen when you least expect it. Good Luck and happy hunting.

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